The United States Department of Agriculture replaced the food pyramid with MyPlate in 2011. MyPlate is part of a larger communication initiative based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to help us make better food choices. MyPlate is designed to remind Americans to eat healthfully. It illustrates the five food groups using a familiar mealtime visual — a place setting. Each plate should be half-filled with vegetables and fruits. Based on age, sex, weight and physical activity, there is a MyPlate Plan link that can help guide us with regards to the recommended amounts of vegetables we should be consuming weekly.
It is almost guaranteed, hands down, that most of us need to increase our vegetable intake. Eliminating meat from our meals on Fridays during Lent sparks the idea of growing our own vegetables. Everything tastes better when we grow it ourselves.
Root vegetables grow very well in Colorado, even in higher elevations where long-season vegetables have little chance of success. Carrots, beets, turnips and rutabagas can be harvested and eaten at any size, making them ideal for short-season areas. Most radishes mature in 30 to 45 days, making them an extremely fast growing crop for our diocese.
Root crops can be left in the soil all winter in Colorado, where snows and freezing temperatures can come early. However, they should be removed before the spring temperatures warm up. Most are also frost hardy and will grow if an early fall frost is followed by warm weather.
The requirements of root crops are fairly minimal. Lighter, loose soils will produce straighter root vegetables. Sandy soils are ideal, although they can grow in clay soils after some preparation which should include tilling amendments into the soil. The best organic amendments are coarse materials. Fibrous sphagnum peats are good but more expensive than compost or aged manure. Don’t use dusty, fine peats that clog soil drainage.
If your soil is heavy (clay) or has poor drainage, raised beds might be the answer. Raised beds save space, drain faster, heat up earlier in the spring, and save water by keeping it where the veggies are growing. Also, because gardeners walk around raised beds rather than on the soil, the soils are kept loose. Raised beds will permit easier digging, and will allow carrots and parsnips to attain greater length and be smoother in shape.
Be sure to check the soil for obstructions like pieces of wood or larger rocks and remove them. If a carrot root is trying to grow and runs into hard objects, it will develop another root or grow crooked.
Although root crops will grow with less than a full day of direct sun, the amount of food produced by the tops and stored in the roots is directly related to the amount of light the plant receives. An entire day of sun produces larger roots. Warm, bright days and cool nights produce maximum root growth.
Plant root crops in rows or beds following seed-packet instructions. After the plants begin to grow, thin them to the diameter of the root at harvest. For example, for a one-inch wide carrot, leave at least an inch between each plant. Side note: the tops of beets and turnips that are thinned can be eaten.
Transplanting root crops is not recommended because digging up the plant usually breaks the tap root, causing malformed and forked roots.
Keeping the vegetable garden weed-free is important. It is much easier to pull weeds when they are small. This practice is also healthier for the garden. If weeds are allowed to grow larger they compete with crops for both water and mineral nutrition.
“To my favorite honeydew, do you carrot all for me? My heart beets for you, with your turnip nose, and radish face. You are a peach. If we cantaloupe, lettuce marry. Weed make a swell pear.” — Author Unknown.
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)